· One million Catholics expected at open air mass
Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
Thursday May 10, 2007
During a press conference on his flight to Sao Paulo, the Pope for the first time dealt in depth with a topic that has come up in many countries, including the United States, Mexico, and Italy.
He was asked whether he supported Mexican church leaders threatening to excommunicate leftist parliamentarians who last month voted to legalise abortion in Mexico City.
"Yes, this excommunication was not an arbitrary one but is allowed by canon (church) law which says that the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with receiving communion, which is receiving the body of Christ," he said.
The Vatican's chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, later tried to downplay the comments, saying the Pope was not himself ordering excommunications.
"Since excommunication hasn't been declared by the Mexican bishops, the Pope has no intention himself of declaring it," he said."Legislative action in favour of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. Politicians exclude themselves from communion."
His comments are likely to raise the stakes in the debate over whether politicians can support abortion or gay marriage and still consider themselves proper Catholics, although during the flight the Pope had described the evangelical advance as "our biggest worry".
In 1980 nearly 90% of Brazilians said they were Catholic. Today the figure has dropped to around 73%, while the evangelical community has risen to nearly 20% of the population. "We have to become more dynamic," the Pope told reporters on the plane.
During the five-day visit to Sao Paulo he will be protected by a security detail reportedly twice as big as the one deployed during the recent visit of George Bush.
Tomorrow a million people are expected to attend an open-air mass in Sao Paulo to watch the canonisation of Brazil's first native saint, Antonio Galvao. Today the Pope will meet the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, and address 35,000 young Catholics in the Pacaembu football stadium.
Pope fever has overcome Brazil's media in the lead-up to the visit and tens of thousands of Catholics have descended on Sao Paulo hoping to snatch a glimpse of the Pope's bulletproof vehicle. The Vatican, however, is all too aware of the challenges it faces in Latin America. In 2005 the Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes conceded that the church had been "haemorrhaging" followers. "How much longer will Latin America be a Catholic continent?" he asked.
Critics blame the current crisis on the Vatican's failure to engage with the poor and its hardline stances on abortion and condoms.
Despite boasting the world's largest Catholic congregation, of around 136 million followers, Brazil has just 18,000 Catholic priests. Evangelical churches, in contrast, have representatives in virtually every corner of the country. But some Catholic churches have started installing air-conditioning and padded pews, and Christian discos are appearing in cities.